Michigan judge rules yes to possible life-without-parole sentence for teenage shooter
Updated September 29, 2023 at 12:49 PM ET
Sometimes a crime is so heinous, and its effect on a community so traumatic, that the person responsible should face the harshest penalty possible, no matter how young they were when they committed the act.
That's the ruling from a Michigan judge, who said Friday that the teen shooter responsible for killing four classmates and wounding seven other people at Oxford High School in November 2021 should be eligible for a life sentence without parole.
Life without parole will be considered as possible sentence
Oakland County Circuit Judge Kwame Rowe's decision follows days of graphic and, at times, disturbing testimony tracing 17-year-old Ethan Crumbley's path toward the bloody massacre in the high school halls.
Crumbley was 15 when he took a handgun from his school backpack, emerged from a school bathroom and methodically began shooting his classmates, as well as firing rounds at a teacher. Most of those he killed were executed at point blank range.
He pleaded guilty last year to 24 felony charges, including murder and terrorism.
In Michigan, which does not have the death penalty, the harshest sentence Crumbley could receive is life without the possibility of parole.
But in 2012 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Miller v. Alabama that for a juvenile to receive such a sentence, a hearing must be held to consider any mitigating factors.
Under Michigan law those factors include the defendant's age and maturity level, the home and family environment they were in and whether they were pressured in some way into committing the crime.
The judge also must examine the chances that the juvenile could eventually be rehabilitated.
Why prosecutors argued for life without parole
During the hearing, prosecutors admitted that it is rare for a youth to be so "irreparably corrupt" that they are incapable of change. But Oakland County Prosecutor Karen McDonald told the judge that Crumbley's meticulous planning of the shooting, his calm demeanor while carrying it out, even what he looked up on the internet, made any chance at redemption remote.
"He researched response times to make sure that he surrendered before the police arrived," McDonald said. "He stayed alive because he wanted to witness the suffering he created. When the Supreme Court and the Michigan Supreme Court talk about the rare case and the defendant, this is the one."
The prosecution also stressed that Crumbley's sentence should be proportional to the murders he committed and the bloodthirsty mindset they said he had leading up to them.
They used Crumbley's writings, audio and video to make their point.
They extensively quoted from Crumbley's texts and journal, where he described the joy he felt from killing small animals, "the younger, the better."
Prosecutors played audio Crumbley recorded on his phone the day before the massacre, noting that he had talked of shooting "pretty girls" at the school first and hoped to gain fame from the act.
And they showed graphic security video, combined with eyewitness accounts from several students who survived the attack.
Crumbley kept his head bowed throughout, then shed tears when Oxford Assistant Principal Kristy Gibson-Marshall testified how she approached Crumbley in the midst of his killing spree, believing he must have found the gun he carried at his side.
When he ignored her questions and walked past, Gibson-Marshall said she knelt to administer mouth-to-mouth resuscitation in a vain attempt to keep Tate Myre, a student lying in the hallway, alive.
Crumbley shot Myre in the back of the head.
"I could taste his blood. So much blood, it was all over me. Took me a long time, months, almost a year to get the taste of Tate's blood out of my mouth," she said.
Defense argued parole should be an option
The defense attorneys countered the trauma Crumbley caused in Oxford was a reflection of the harm he suffered for years before the shootings, in large part due to his parents' neglect.
The defense also quoted from the then-15-year-old's texts and journal, noting that he felt abandoned by parents who, they said, were more concerned with their horses than their child.
Lawyers said Crumbley wrote about hearing voices, seeing hallucinations and had suffered a head injury that was never treated.
When he asked his parents, James and Jennifer Crumbley, for mental health counseling, the teenager said his father instead gave him a pill and "told me to suck it up."
The defense argued that the parents not only ignored signs their son was troubled, they bought him a handgun as an early Christmas present and took him to a shooting range to practice firing it.
Defense attorneys also noted that on the day of the murders, the parents were called to the school because teachers had found Crumbley looking up ammunition while in class and drawing pictures of guns and bleeding victims alongside phrases like "Help me," and "The thoughts won't stop."
Yet they refused to take him home from school, or even check the backpack that contained his weapon.
Prosecutors also say Crumbley's parents were grossly negligent, and they charged them with involuntary manslaughter.
The defense also maintained that Crumbley has shown signs of both remorse and mental illness since he's been in jail.
They played various video excerpts of law enforcement officers restraining the teen in a chair as he thrashed back-and-forth, repeatedly sobbing phrases like, "Why didn't you stop it God? You let it happen!"
Forensic psychologist Dr. Colin King told the court it was the kind of symptoms someone who is mentally disturbed would display.
"What we just witnessed, someone who's saying 'God why didn't you stop it?' That's exactly how psychosis works," King said.
Defense attorneys added testimony from several other experts who claimed that teens Crumbley's age are so young, their brains so far from being fully mature, that they can still be redeemed.
A specialist in prison rehabilitation, Dr. Kenneth Romanowski, said he had seen juveniles convicted of even the worst offenses took advantage of the educational and social programs offered to inmates.
"Honestly I think everybody has that potential to change," Romanowski said. "And I think Mr. Crumbley would be no exception to that rule. But I think he has to make that choice."
In his opinion judge said Crumbley's possibility for rehabilitation is slim
"This crime is not the result of impetuosity or recklessness, nor does this crime reflect the hallmarks of youth," Judge Rowe opined. "[The] defendant carefully and meticulously planned and carried out the shooting."
At this point, the evidence from before the crime and from Crumbley's incarceration shows he remains obsessed with violence, so the possibility for rehabilitation is "slim," according to the judge.
"The evidence does not demonstrate to this court that he wants to change," he said.
On Dec. 8, Judge Rowe will hold a final hearing where victims of the shooting will talk about the impact on their lives. Then the judge will announce his decision on whether the juvenile who destroyed so many lives in Oxford should spend the rest of his behind bars.
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